Ben Gurion University of the Negev
"Beyond Piety and Social Conscience: Uncle Tom's Cabin as an Antebellum Children's Book"
"Charles bro't home 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' the other night, & the children are devouring it." Diary of Ellen Douglas Birdseye Wheaton, Syracuse N.Y. (1852)
Children were a significant part of Stowe's reading public when Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852. This paper argues that Uncle Tom's Cabin challenged generic norms for children's literature and that this challenge helps explain the novel's popularity. Educators and commentators of the period disapproved of fairy tales and frightening material as well as representations of disobedience. By using black children to enact behavior and emotions that were generally avoided in stories written for white ones, Stowe heightened the appeal of Topsy and Harry. Up to a point this claim dovetails with that of post-colonial critics who claim that white people routinely see their own repressed fantasies writ large in black figures; but refinements are needed to understand why many white children responded intensely to Stowe's tale.
Harry and Topsy were clearly marked as different from the little white readers who "devoured" their story. At the same time these figures – playful, frightened, angry, naughty – must have seemed uncannily familiar to white children who were regularly adjured to exercise self-control and to curb fear and anger, not to mention misbehavior. But if white antebellum children could see themselves reflected in Harry or Topsy did the experience of reading generate respect for otherness? Did it suggest that black and white children might share interior states? Or did contemplation of Topsy's mischief only encourage complacency and condescension in the white child-reader?
I approach these questions by examining the representation of Topsy and Harry in Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin, a children's edition of the novel that appeared in 1853. Publications are no direct evidence of reading practices, but by rereading Uncle Tom's Cabin as a children's story alongside other texts for and about children we can see the disruptive potential in Stowe's representation of Topsy and Harry and clarify the book's appeal for "all ages" in the antebellum period.
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